September 30, 2010

Dedication to healthy foods considered an eating disorder

It almost sounds like the headline from an Onion article.

But back in August of 2009 the Guardian published a piece about how a fixation with healthy eating can be a sign of a serious psychological disorder. Called orthorexia nervosa, this so-called 'condition' was first diagnosed by Californian Steven Bratmanin in 1997 and is described as a "fixation on righteous eating." According to Bratmanin,
Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.
This obsession about which foods are "good" and which are "bad" means orthorexics can end up malnourished, claim the researchers, but at the same time be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly 'pure'.

The most susceptible are middle-class, well-educated people who regularly read about food "scares" and have the time and money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives.

I could go on but I'm going to stop right there; you get the picture.

Wow, I'm flabbergasted by this. While I admit it possible that a very small minority of health conscious people may actually be starving themselves on account of food paranoia, I have to think it's exceptionally rare. But according to this article and the researchers cited, orthorexia nervosa is a pervasive problem. In fact, there is a quote in the article from Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, who said, "There is a fine line between people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who have orthorexia. I see people around me who have no idea they have this disorder. I see it in my practice and I see it among my friends and colleagues."

Okay, so there's an abundance of well-educated, informed, middle-class health nuts.

And their dedication to eating healthily is now considered an eating disorder.

Specifically, those people who have eliminated such things as sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods from their diets—not to mention pesticides, herbicides, and artificial additives.

These people have an eating disorder?

I hardly think so. These people are my heros for goodness sake. While I can understand why some people might consider them obsessives, I think of them as focused and disciplined. Eliminating those particular foods along with those extraneous toxins should be considered a good thing.

But therein lies the problem. These researchers, some of whom should know better (particularly the dietitians), are much like society in general: completely ignorant of what constitutes a healthy diet. By consequence, any deviation from the status quo—in this case an apparent radically restrictive diet—is considered not just deviant behavior, but something that's actually pathological in nature.

Truth is, the vast majority of "food" out there is stuff we shouldn't be eating in the first place; the core of the modern grocery store is a nothing more than a crap dispenser. By consequence, the world's eating habits are insane. But some people are getting wise to it, adopting such diets as Paleo, Zone, and others. Yes, these diets can be quite restrictive in the types and quantities of foods involved, but that's the reality of healthy (and dare I say ethical) eating.

As a result, for those unaccustomed or unfamiliar with what a truly healthy diet looks like, it may look rather spartan. If not completely bonkers.

The food industry is partly to blame. Hyper-processed and fast foods laden in sugar and salt are a staple of many diets. Ad campaigns fool consumers into thinking they're eating healthily. Parents are regularly deceived into thinking that a bowl of super-sweetened cereal is an integral part of their children's well-balanced diet—and just because it has a bit of fibre in it.

The government is also partly responsible with their ridiculously inaccurate food pyramid. This is a particularly nefarious and longstanding turd of misinformation (or deliberate disinformation?) that informs the food industry and a myriad of other institutions about what and how much they're supposed to prepare and serve to the public.

Lastly, the general population is also to blame. Like the cigarette smoker, most people knowingly engage in habits that are bad for them, while many others insist on remaining ignorant.

So, here in the developed world where there are pandemics of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and many, many other lifestyle related diseases, we are now being told that a dedication to prevention is a psychological disorder. What foolishness. This is irresponsible to the point of negligence.

The phrase 'my body is a temple' comes to mind. For many of us, our ongoing efforts to keep our minds and bodies healthy is an integral part of our daily lives. We know that proper habits will impact on our health both in the short and long term. By making careful food choices now and having the discipline to avoid unhealthy eating, we stand a much better chance of extending our healthy life-span and quality of life. There is nothing wrong with that.

In fact, if only more people had this so-called 'orthorexia nervosa' we'd all be in a much better place.


ZarPaulus said...

Not surprised

william harryman said...

Diagnostically, there must be a moral component to the food choices made - a sense in the person that some foods are "clean" and most others are not. A person who really has this disorder, and is not simply eating a healthy but limited selection of foods, will often have only two or three foods that are clean enough - the dietary choices will be imbalanced on average and likely to result in malnutrition or extreme weight loss.

There psychological undercurrent is similar to anorexia, there is a "morality" behind it, just as for anorexic being thin is a moral issue (and eating food is often equated with sin, imperfection, weakness, and so on).

I understand your skepticism - and the media is just plain ignorant - but this is a real issue for some people (not nearly as many as the woman in the article suggests).

By the way, love your site.


Unknown said...

From my own observations, I think, what WH said is true, i.e. it's a real issue for some people, but not so many.

But people with certain eating habits -- or, may be, disorders -- can be quite annoying for their contemporaries. The colleague of mine, who has been sitting next to me a lot of years, had the habit of eating "certain" things without a pause, which got him belch all day long rather intensely and openly into my direction. Well, the stench ... I think, this former colleague of mine has several disorders.

Unknown said...

It's worth pointing out that the DSM-IV and the next version, the DSM-V, do not have 'orthorexia nervosa' in them - it's not a particularly legit psychological disorder. Not that the DSMs are Teh Bible or the like, but when a news article comes out talking about 'Next Big Scary Psych Disorder' and it's not in the main diagnostic manual for psychologists/psychiatrists, I sense a media company running with link bait. I anticipate the vast majority of shrinks will continue to not diagnose people with this.